My first proper encounter with spoken word poetry was at Leeds University’s Black History Month Spoken Word Night a month or so ago. Although it was an interesting evening, I have to admit that I was getting a little bored by the fifth or sixth performer. That’s not to say they weren’t good poets, it’s just that everyone seemed to be talking about the same things in the same way. As an atheist, I really cannot relate to any of the religious stuff, and much as I’m all for racial equality, it just felt like most of them were not bringing anything new to the table. That was until Oliver came on stage with his signature turtleneck jumper (‘Once you try it there’s no going back,’ he promises). It was apparently the first time he’s ever performed in front of such a large audience, but judging by his confident stance and beautiful poetry, you wouldn’t have been able to tell at all.
‘I started writing poetry two or three years ago when I was in Washington DC because I met a girl – you know how it is,’ said Oliver as he rolled his eyes ever so slightly. ‘It wasn’t meant to be shared – sort of like a diary – but the writing process was really cathartic.’
His interest in the art form grew, and soon he began searching along the American East Coast for poetry events. This led him to the famous New York Bowery Club, where he first encountered spoken word.
‘I just saw them do it and thought, this is cool, this is what I want to do,’ said Oliver. And that’s where it all began.
He started writing slam poetry about a year ago, and his first break into the performing scene came when he was working in Ethiopia over the summer. He met poet/MC I Timothy on a bus, and it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. I Timothy was at the time trying to establish an English-speaking poetry club, and he soon invited Oliver to perform at a jazz club.
‘It was by no means the perfect entrance to the scene,’ Oliver admitted. ‘But I wasn’t dejected. You’ve got to start somewhere.’
He has had quite a few gigs at various open mic nights since coming back to Leeds in September to finish his final year as a Politics student at the University. He has also been actively trying to promote the spoken word scene in the city by establishing a monthly event called ‘Spit and Soul’ with his friend and fellow slam poet Darwin Jr Turton. They had their first show a few weeks ago at the Henry Moore Institute, which I was unfortunately unable to attend but heard only good things about.
The element in Oliver’s poetry that really caught my attention is its freshness. His rhymes are clever, his rhythm flows, and he offers a unique take on things that have already been discussed before. I felt like I was hearing new material, as opposed to lines and clichés that have been regurgitated too many times to a jaded audience.
‘I try to stay away from the conventional things,’ Oliver confirmed. ‘I don’t talk about my life in my spoken word poems much because I’m pretty sure no one really wants to hear about it. It’s pretty boring. My written poetry is quite emotional, but my spoken word ones are more political. Although that said, I do have to keep in mind that most people don’t give a crap about politics either, and sometimes I hate it because it gets so cheesy. But then again, I think poetry is almost assumed to be pathetic anyway.’
He does however face a challenge when performing, not because he isn’t confident enough or gets stage fright (he’s been on a debating team before and is thus used to public speaking), but because he feels like it’s not sincere.
‘My poems are mostly of the moment,’ said Oliver. ‘I mean I know all of them back to front, and when I look back on what I’ve written a few months later, I know they’re alright, but they feel more like an act because the moment has passed.’
And yet there are undoubtedly moments of glory, such as the times when he performed before his high school bullies.
‘There is nothing more vindicating than having those who used to make fun of you, clapping for you,’ smiled Oliver.
I saw him looking at his watch and he apologised that he’d have to be off to stand in for a friend’s radio show, so I finished my hot chocolate and wrapped up our chat with a question I’ve been dying to know. In his self-explanatory poem ‘Spoken Word and Me’, he claims that he could recite all 131 lines of TS Eliot’s ‘The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock’. As that is my favourite poem, I wanted to know if can he actually do it.
‘Yes, I love that poem’ he replied looking a bit sheepish. ‘I actually copied out the whole thing by hand and had it stuck to my mirror, so I see it all the time.’
I was impressed, and it occurred to me that maybe I should do the same. You never know – it might come in handy at some awkward party in the future.
So for those of you lucky enough to be in Leeds, keep an eye out for Oliver’s next performances – he’s the next big thing in town and definitely worth checking out. We shall hear more about him in the near future.
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You can find Oliver’s performances of Matthew 5:5 and Shadeless History on YouTube, and read his political blog for the Independent at http://blogs.independent.co.uk/author/oliverduggan/